Rich in 1973
|Charles Allan Rich|
December 14, 1932|
Colt, Arkansas, United States
|Died||July 25, 1995
Hammond, Louisiana, United States
|Genres||Country, countrypolitan, rockabilly, jazz, blues, Gospel, blue-eyed soul|
|Instruments||Vocals, piano, guitar|
|Labels||Sun, Phillips, Groove / RCA, Smash Records, Hi Records, Epic, UA, Elektra, Sire|
|Roger Miller, Janie Fricke|
Charles Allan Rich (December 14, 1932 - July 25, 1995) was an American country music singer, songwriter, and musician. His eclectic style of music was often difficult to classify, encompassing the rockabilly, jazz, blues, country, soul, and gospel genres.
In the later part of his life, Rich acquired the nickname the Silver Fox. He is perhaps best remembered for a pair of 1973 hits, "Behind Closed Doors" and "The Most Beautiful Girl". "The Most Beautiful Girl" topped the U.S. country singles charts, as well as the Billboard Hot 100 pop singles charts and earned him two Grammy Awards. Rich was inducted into the Memphis Music Hall of Fame in 2015.
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Rich was born in Colt, Arkansas, to rural cotton farmers. He graduated from Consolidated High School in Forrest City, where he played saxophone in the band. He was strongly influenced by his parents, members of the Landmark Missionary Baptist Church in Forrest City, as his mother, Helen Rich, played piano and his father sang in gospel quartets. A black sharecropper on the family land named C. J. Allen taught Rich blues piano. He enrolled at Arkansas State College on a football scholarship and then transferred to the University of Arkansas as a music major after a football injury. He left after one semester to join the United States Air Force in 1953.
While stationed in Enid, Oklahoma, he formed "the Velvetones," playing jazz and blues and featuring his wife, Margaret Ann, on vocals. He and Margaret Ann Greene had married in 1952. Upon leaving the military in 1956, they returned to the West Memphis area to farm 500 acres. He also began performing in clubs around the Memphis area, playing both jazz and R&B. During these times, he began writing his own material.
After recording some demonstration songs for Sam Phillips at Sun Records that Phillips considered not commercial enough and "too jazzy", he was given a stack of Jerry Lee Lewis records and told: "Come back when you get that bad." In a September 6, 2010, NPR airing of a 1992 interview with Fresh Air host Terry Gross, Charlie Rich tells the story, himself, of Bill Justis telling Rich's wife those words. In 1958, Rich became a regular session musician for Sun Records, playing on a variety of records by Lewis, Johnny Cash, Bill Justis, Warren Smith, Billy Lee Riley, Carl Mann, and Ray Smith. He also wrote several songs for Lewis, Cash, and others.
His third single for the Sun subsidiary, Phillips International Records, was the 1960 Top 30 hit, "Lonely Weekends", which was notable for its Presley-like vocals. It sold more than one million copies and was awarded a gold disc by the Recording Industry Association of America. None of his seven follow-up singles was a success, however, though several of the songs became staples in his live set, including "Who Will the Next Fool Be", "Sittin' and Thinkin'", and "No Headstone on My Grave". These songs were often recorded by others to varying degrees of success, such as the Bobby Bland version of "Who Will the Next Fool Be".
Rich's career then stalled and he left the struggling Sun label in 1963, signing with a subsidiary of RCA Victor, Groove. His first single for Groove, "Big Boss Man", was a minor hit, but again, his Chet Atkins-produced follow-ups all stiffed. Rich moved to Smash Records early in 1965. Rich's new producer, Jerry Kennedy, encouraged the pianist to emphasize his country and rock n' roll leanings, although Rich considered himself a jazz pianist and had not paid much attention to country music since his childhood. The first single for Smash was "Mohair Sam", an R&B-inflected novelty-rock number written by Dallas Frazier, and it became a top 30 pop hit. Unfortunately again for Rich, none of his follow-up singles was successful. Rich was forced to change labels, moving to Hi Records, where he recorded blue-eyed soul music and straight country, but none of his singles made a dent on the country or pop charts. One Hi Records track, "Love Is After Me", from 1966, belatedly became a white soul favorite in the early-1970s.
Despite his lack of consistent commercial success, Epic Records signed Rich in 1967, mainly on the recommendation of producer Billy Sherrill. Sherrill helped Rich refashion himself as a Nashville Sound balladeer during an era when old rock 'n' roll artists like Jerry Lee Lewis and Conway Twitty were finding a new musical home in the country and western format. This new "countrypolitan" Rich sound paid off in the summer of 1972, when "I Take It on Home" went to number six on the country charts. The title track from his 1973 album Behind Closed Doors became a number-one country hit early in that year, then crossing over into the top 20 on the pop charts. This time, his follow-up single did not disappoint, as "The Most Beautiful Girl" spent three weeks at the top of the country charts and two weeks at the top of the pop charts. Now that he was established as a country music star, Behind Closed Doors won three awards from the Country Music Association that year: Best Male Vocalist, Album of the Year, and Single of the Year. The album was also certified gold. Rich won a Grammy Award for Best Male Country Vocal Performance, and he took home four Academy of Country Music awards. One of RCA's several resident songwriters, Marvin Walters, co-wrote for three years with Charlie, producing four recordings including a very popular "Set Me Free".
After "The Most Beautiful Girl," number-one hits came quickly, as five songs topped the country charts in 1974 and crossed over to the pop charts. The songs were "There Won't Be Anymore" (pop number 18), "A Very Special Love Song" (pop number 11), "I Don't See Me In Your Eyes Anymore" (pop number 47), "I Love My Friend" (pop number 24), and "She Called Me Baby" (pop number 47). Both RCA and Mercury (Smash was a subsidiary of Mercury which was absorbed into the main company in 1970) re-released his previously recorded material from the mid-1960s, as well. All of this success led the CMA to name him Entertainer of the Year in 1974. In the same year he performed the Academy Award-nominated theme song "I Feel Love (Benji's Theme)" from the film Benji. Rich had three more top-five hits in 1975, but though he was at the peak of his popularity, Rich began to drink heavily, causing considerable problems off-stage.
Rich's destructive personal behavior famously culminated at the CMA awards ceremony for 1975, when he presented the award for Entertainer of the Year, while visibly intoxicated. After stumbling through the names of the nominees, Rich clumsily tore open the envelope, took out a cigarette lighter, and lit the paper on fire with the winner's name. While the paper burned, he announced that the winner of the award was "My friend Mr. John Denver." Some considered it an act of rebellion against the Music Row-controlled Nashville Sound. But many speculated that Rich's behavior was a protest against the award going to Denver, whose music Rich had considered too "pop" and not enough "country". Others, including industry insiders, were outraged, and Rich had trouble having hits throughout 1976, and only had one top-ten with "Since I Fell For You". In a 2016 interview, former CMA Executive Director Jo Walker-Meador speculated that Rich's drunkenness may have been in part due to resentment over his being shut out of the nominations that year, after his success at the 1974 awards. His son Charlie, Jr., says on his website: "...why did he do it? I'll tell you why I thought he did it. #1 He thought it would be funny. He set it up by talking about how the potential winners were probably nervous, as he had been the previous year. #2 Bad judgement. He had recently broken his foot in a freak accident at his home in Memphis. It sounds funny, but he got his foot caught in an awkward position while getting out of a reclining chair. He cracked several bones in his foot. So...Due to the pain, he took pain medication the night of the show: Bad idea! Secondly, he and another country star got to drinking gin and tonics while waiting in the dressing room. The show was long, so by the time Dad was supposed to go on, the drinks on top of the medication got him buzzed. So, there ya' go. That's why I think he did it. Primarily he thought it would be funny. I know the last thing my father would have wanted to do was set himself up as judge of another musician. He felt badly that people thought it was a statement against John Denver."
The slump in his career was exacerbated by the fact that his records began to sound increasingly similar: pop-inflected country ballads with overdubbed strings and little of the jazz or blues Rich had performed his entire life. He did not have a top-10 hit again until "Rollin' With the Flow" went to number one on the country charts (as well as number 32 on the easy listening charts) in 1977. Early the following year, in 1978, he signed with United Artists Records, and throughout that year, he had hits on both Epic and UA. His hits in 1978 included the top-10 hits "Beautiful Woman", "Puttin' In Overtime At Home", and his last number one with "On My Knees", a duet with Janie Fricke.
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Rich struggled throughout 1979 having hits with United Artists and Epic. His singles were moderate hits that year, the biggest of them on either UA or Epic was a version of "Spanish Eyes", which became a top-20 country hit. Rich appeared as himself in the 1978 Clint Eastwood movie, Every Which Way but Loose, in which he performed the song "I'll Wake You Up When I Get Home". This song hit number three on the charts in 1979 and was the last top-10 single of his career. In 1980, he switched labels again to Elektra Records, and released a number-12 single, "A Man Just Don't Know What a Woman Goes Through" in the fall of that year. One more top-40 hit followed, the Gary Stewart song "Are We Dreamin' the Same Dream" early in 1981, but Rich decided to remove himself from the spotlight. For over a decade, Rich was silent, living off his investments in semiretirement and only playing occasional concerts. He also played a bit part in the 1981 movie Take This Job and Shove It which yielded his last charted single, "You Made It Beautiful".
In 1992, Rich released Pictures and Paintings, a jazzy album that was produced by journalist Peter Guralnick. This album was released via Sire Records. Pictures and Paintings received positive critical reviews and restored Rich's reputation as a musician, but it was his last album. In 2016, a tribute album entitled Feel Like Going Home: The Songs of Charlie Rich was released by Memphis International Records. Tom Waits, who was an opening act for Rich in the 1970s, mentions him in the song "Putnam County" from his album Nighthawks at the Diner with the lyric: "The radio's spitting out Charlie Rich... He sure can sing, that son of a bitch."
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Charlie Rich and his wife were driving to Florida for a vacation after seeing their son Allan perform with Freddy Fender at Lady Luck Casino in Natchez, Mississippi when he experienced a bout of severe coughing. After visiting a doctor in St. Francisville, Louisiana and receiving antibiotics, he continued traveling until he stopped to rest for the night. Rich died in his sleep on July 25, 1995, in a Hammond, Louisiana motel; he was 62 years old. The cause of death was a pulmonary embolism. He was buried in the Memorial Park Cemetery in Memphis, Tennessee.
At the time of his death, Rich was survived by his wife of 43 years, Margaret; two sons, Allan and Jack; two daughters, Renee and Laurie; and grandchildren Maggie Karber Yelverton, Wesley Karber, and Christian Cole Lee. Margaret Rich died in Germantown, Tennessee, on July 22, 2010, and was buried alongside her husband.